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Chances are if you’ve described yourself as having “sensitive skin”—picky about ingredients, prone to angry flare-ups after one wrong product—you probably approach exfoliants with wary skepticism. We can't really blame you; removing dead skin cells sounds like a recipe for disaster on reactive skin. But what if we told you that exfoliating on sensitive skin is possible...without irritation? It's true; plenty of exfoliants are gentle enough to try, and while it’s difficult to predict if your skin will react (“sensitive skin” is a blanket term for a number of skin concerns, not a clinical diagnosis), you can avoid likely triggers like fragrance, harsh scrubs, and high acid concentrations.
To get you started, we’ve rounded up the top exfoliators for sensitive skin in an assortment of formulas, from a peel that rolls up dead skin into satisfying clumps to a gentle, soothing exfoliating pad.
Best Overall: Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
This tiny, beloved serum packs a gentle yet hard-working blend of acids, from lactic acid to glycolic acid. They slough off dead skin without rubbing your skin raw, leaving a pretty glow. Hyaluronic acid makes an appearance, too, mixed in with honey to cocoon your skin with hydration as the acids exfoliate. Salicylic acid (from the willow bark extract) helps clarify skin.
This concoction works like a dream, working steadily over time to smooth and brighten your face. Silky and beautifully scented thanks to the honey blend, it’s a joy to smooth on. Start slowly: Apply one pump after cleanser and toner before working up to using the serum two or three times a week.
Best Budget: e.l.f. Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
Aside from the extremely budget-friendly price, the appeal of this e.l.f. exfoliant is the strange delight of watching your dead skin clump up on your face. The way it works is this: After you smooth on a thin layer of the gel, you begin rubbing all over your face until it starts to pill.
What you see isn’t all dead skin, which is a good thing, but the cellulose in the peel mixing with the oils in your skin. Technically a physical exfoliant since it doesn’t dissolve the glue between skin cells as acids do, it leaves skin brighter, smoother, and softer. Reviewers love it for its efficacy, of course, but most of all the extremely satisfying visuals.
Check out our guide to the best face exfoliators on the market.
Best for Dry Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Exfoliating pads have a reputation for being too harsh, but these pads are here to change that. They provide the satisfying exfoliating action (not much compares to the sensation of wiping off all that grime) without grinding your skin’s moisture barrier into obsolescence. Glycolic acid, a tiny acid molecule, gently brightens skin while refining texture.
Lactic acid also pitches in, while hyaluronic acid and green tea extract hydrate skin. Several reviewers mentioned cutting the pads in half since they’re a bit oversized for one use, which makes the packs of 28 or 60 even more cost-effective. To use, you would treat the pads like an exfoliating toner, swiping on after cleansing (though you can layer with a moisturizing toner for extra hydration).
Best for Oily Skin: Amorepacific Treatment Enzyme Peel
This exfoliating treatment from Korean beauty brand Amorepacific comes as a powder, which you lather up with a small amount of lukewarm water after cleansing. As you massage the froth in, papaya extract gently exfoliates while green tea extract soothes and protects the skin. After 30 to 45 seconds, rinse off the peel before applying the rest of your skincare products. The allantoin in the peel conditions skin and helps with cell turnover while leaving your face even softer than before.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Having acne-prone skin that also balks at popular exfoliating products can put you in a bind. This gentle glycolic acid serum might help. It uses a blend of AHAs to remove dead skin as salicylic acid cleans out pores, refining skin over time. Green tea extract, aloe vera, and raspberry extract comfort and hydrate skin.
The Framboos serum comes in Drunk Elephant’s signature airtight twist bottle, which helps preserve the (admittedly pricey) formula. When you first get the serum, start by using once or twice a week after cleanser and toner, giving yourself a few days in between. As with most serums, you don’t need more than a drop or two. The initial tingling should go away after the first times you use the serum, and be careful not to combine with other acids.
Best for Beginners: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Lotion
If you’ve never used a chemical exfoliant before, this 8% glycolic acid lotion is a skin-friendly option. Glycolic acid is ideal for beginners for a few reasons: Since the molecule is so tiny, it penetrates the skin quickly to refine skin. The results are gradual, yet noticeable. Glycolic acid is also a humectant, which is why it makes your skin feel more hydrated than before.
Paula’s Choice thoughtfully formulated its AHA Lotion with a pH-stabilizing ingredient that ensures the glycolic acid will work (a too-high pH does the opposite). After cleansing and applying your favorite (non-acid!!) toner, pour a small amount into your hands and carefully apply all over the face. It’s gentle enough to use every day, which is perfect for the beginner who might not have a huge stash of active ingredients.
Best Exfoliating Pads: Neogen Dermalogy Real Cica Pad
Neogen’s green tea pads are a fan favorite, but these work harder without messing with your skin. “Cica” is short for centella asiatica, an herb with an impressive array of benefits. Packed with amino acids and fatty acids, cica soothes skin, treats acne, repairs skin, and as if that weren’t enough, also brightens and hydrates.
The Neogen pads boost your skin’s glow with textured sides that gently slough away dead and dull skin. They also contain hyaluronic acid to help plump up skin. After you use the pads, leave the essence on your face, as if it were a toner, and continue with the rest of your routine. Start by using once a week before working up to once a day at the most.
Interested in reading more reviews? Peep our roundup of the best chemical peels for glowing skin.